MUSKOGEE — Scott Bates sits at his computer and chases his dream.
Pointing a sensor attached to his NASCAR hat at the screen by tilting his head this way and that, he designs paint schemes for race cars. Even though he already had a couple of his creations used in NASCAR races, he hopes for more.
As the NASCAR season speeds toward its conclusion — only two weekends remain after Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway — dreams are being realized. But for Scott Bates, the chase will go on after the season is over.
This, you see, is more than a job.
It's a lifeline.
Scott has multiple sclerosis, and race car design has given the Muskogee resident a connection to a world beyond his computer screen, a world he can no longer touch.
Scott is a quadriplegic.
The disease that attacks the central nervous system left him without the use of his arms and his legs. Confined to a wheelchair, the once active and agile Marine can only move his head and neck.
“But I'm happy,” Scott said. “I don't sit around and cry all the time. I have my moments of being sad, but they're not very often.
“If I would've never got sick, I would've never learned this.”
He nodded toward his computer screens, his windows on the world.
Scott suspects he had MS for more than two decades before he was diagnosed. While in the Marines, he had heat intolerance. It wasn't continual, but on occasion, a hot shower would leave him sprawled out on the bathroom floor. He even suffered heat stroke once.
Despite that, he didn't think anything was seriously wrong. He felt good way more than he felt bad.
“But I can look back now on it and think, ‘Oh, that wasn't from drinking beer Friday night,'” Scott said.
While serving in the Marines, Scott became a NASCAR fan. It was the mid-80s, and Dale Earnhardt was in his heyday. The Intimidator became Scott's guy.
“Just liked his attitude, his persona,” Scott said.
And when he went to work for a Chevy dealership in Norman — Earnhardt was a Chevy driver — that only made Scott a bigger fan.
Work in the service department became increasing difficult as Scott's health problems returned and became more persistent. He began to have weakness in his legs, and by 2004, he couldn't work anymore.
Finally, he was diagnosed with MS.
He still had the use of all his limbs when he was diagnosed, but he would often stumble and fall. He got to the point where he had to hold onto something to walk.
Eventually, his legs stopped working.
Within a year of starting to use a wheelchair, Scott began having problems with his arms.
Less than five years after diagnosis, he had lost the use of his arms and his legs.
“When my hands went,” Scott said, “I got pretty depressed.”
One of the reasons was that he had just started designing race cars. He stumbled into it while playing a racing video game that had a design-your-own-car feature. The technology on the game was rudimentary, but Scott had found a passion.
He found some advanced software for his computer that would allow him to do more intricate designs. After teaching himself to use the program, he would design the side panels, hood, roof and trunk on a flat surface, then the software would overlay the design on a car and make it three dimensional.
How was he supposed to do any of that work without being able to use a mouse?
“I thought I was in trouble when my hands stopped working,” Scott said.
Scott asked daughter Valerie for help. Along with her husband and two daughters, she moved into Scott and wife Kathy's house several years ago to help with his 24-hour care. He'd tell her what to do with the mouse, and she'd do it.
“That lasted about a week,” she said, laughing.
Valerie searched the Internet for an alternative. She found a blog by the mother of a quadriplegic. The woman wrote that they'd found a hands-free mouse called SmartNav, and with a sensor that mounted on the bill of a baseball cap, it was so fine tuned the son could play video games again.
It had reopened one of his windows to the world.
Scott and Valerie figured they'd give it a try.
It took Scott awhile to master it — Valerie has tried it and insists it's harder than her dad makes it look — but now, wearing what looks like a little felt dot on front of his cap's bill, he smoothly moves the cursor around the screen with slight tilts of his head. He sets the controls to have the mouse do different things, like double click. Then he when he hovers the cursor over something, it double clicks.
“Pretty neat, huh?” Scott said.
Almost as neat as the designs that Scott creates.
He creates all sorts of different looks for different drivers, usually coming up with ideas as he lays in bed each night. It usually takes him between 10 and 14 hours to bring his ideas to life.
During the summer of 2010, he decided to design a Kevin Harvick No. 29 car with a Budweiser paint scheme. Harvick's team, Richard Childress Racing, was rumored to be considering a sponsorship move to Bud.
Scott's rendering was so good that Rebecca Gladden, a freelance writer who covers NASCAR, thought it was real. After seeing it linked off Scott's Twitter account, @ernhrtfan, she thought that the rumors were true and that the paint scheme had been linked.
When Gladden found out it was one of Scott's creations, she wrote a story about him.
Not long after, Leilani Munter, a part-time driver in the ARCA Racing Series, asked Scott to design a paint scheme for her car for an upcoming race.
Then about a year, Scott's story made its way to Wally Cahill. He is a friend of Gladden's, but he's also a motorsport broadcast personality and a former Marine. Cahill brought Scott's story to the attention of the Vampt Beverage Company, who was sponsoring driver J.J. Yeley.
They asked Scott to create a design for Yeley's No. 38 car to race in Phoenix on Veteran's Day weekend.
Scott and his family went to Phoenix for the race and watched in disbelief as his design sped around the track.
“Just sat and stared most of the time,” Scott said.
Yeley raced again with one of Scott's designs earlier this year during the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.
Scott has gotten interest from a few other drivers about his designs, but as of now, nothing is set in stone. He isn't discouraged. Not even close.
Having MS taught him to appreciate what he has.
“Even simple things ... like walking or giving someone a hug is something I can't do,” he said. “It made me realize not only what I lost but what I've also gained.
“I've gained a lot of new knowledge and faith.”
Yes, there are days when he feels down and defeated. There are times when he's angry that he can't pick up his granddaughters or squeeze his wife.
Those dark moments pass quickly, though. Scott credits his dedicated family and his deep faith, but being able to design race cars is an important part of it, too.
“It really gives me a big sense of freedom,” he said. “It's really one of the only things that I have left that I can sit and do by myself.”
Scott Bates can still chase a dream.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.